Wednesday, 20 April 2016

Seasonal Sentimentality

It's finally starting to cool down here on Groote Eylandt. 

The change in the weather has me reflecting on places I have spent time where the seasons are more defined. I sometimes dream wistfully of a climate where a full bodied red is appetising - here it's just too hot and humid most of the time!

I have heard of fellow residents closing up the house and blasting the aircon to simulate a cooler environment in order to enjoy their wine of choice. Or resorting to even more desperate measures such as putting ice cubes in their wine. Don't get me wrong, there's definitely a time and place for having chilled wine, but watering it down - that's another level altogether...

Whilst reflecting on seasonal change, my thoughts turned to an article I wrote whilst I was working Vintage in Canada. This article was entered into a writing competition for a well-reputed wine magazine I subscribe to. Although I was not selected as the best entrant, it would be a shame for all that time and effort to go to waste. So here's my article. I do hope you enjoy it - I would love your feedback on what I can improve for next time!

Seasonal Sentimentality

There are very few professions left in this globaliseddigitalised, hyperactive world that still follow the cyclical rhythm of the seasons. Even fresh foods we eat are now available all year round thanks to international transportation networks, advanced preservation techniques and genetic engineering.

Many of us have lost touch with the ebb and flow of the seasons. The reinvigoration of spring is swallowed up as shops bring out their Christmas wares. Long, hot days in summer still occur, but who really feels that quest for shade and water with modern air-conditioning? There is little time for reflection in autumn, when the falling leaves should remind us that nothing is forever. And as for winter, hibernation through rest and nourishment is rarely observed amidst the hustle and bustle of everyday life.

In saying that, there is still a pattern in the wines people drink at any given time of year. Spring sees warmer days and picnics, just crying out for a glass of rosé or bubbly. Summer calls for fresh, crisp whites and autumn for light, spicy reds. Of course, big bold reds make their presence known in winter, along with fortifieds that warm from the inside out.

Drinking wine to suit the weather is really only scratching the surface of seasonal awareness and appreciation. Those involved in making wine experience this on another level altogether, to the point where vignerons must be in tune with nature's slightest fluctuations, and adjust their routines accordingly. The infinite nature of their annual work cycle has no clear starting point, but each season has its own worthwhile reflection.

The season of the sun is a period of constant vigilance, where the growth of the grapes hangs in delicate balance. Weather forecasts become an obsession due to concerns associated with disease propagation, sun exposure and ripening capability. If anyone has the right to blame the weather man for an incorrect prediction, it would be a vigneron

As summer progresses, regular walks through the vineyards become essential. Questions that may be rolling through a producer's mind include: is my leaf coverage adequate or arethe grapes missing out on essential sunlight? Am I under or over irrigating the crop? Have I mitigated the differences in exposure based upon the directional layout of my vineyard? As you can see, all these questions are a matter of balance. 
Ever had the disappointing experience of a 'watery' Merlot? One contributing factor may have been excessive irrigation, which, although resulting in higher crop yield, also dilutes the berries and weakens that rich plum fruit profile one expects from the variety.

The defining question of this season is: when to pick? For some in Australia, picking may actually have already started in summer, so this statement is a generalisation. Either way, rain is the enemy, as it can result in dilution of both grape samples and harvested crop.

Sampling is undertaken regularly and in earnest, with laboratory staff run off their feet conducting sugar, pH and acidity testing. No doubt each winemaker has their ownexperience of sleepless nights based upon a decision to hold off picking over a weekend.

Decisions surrounding markers for picking require a clear vision of the end product. A crispMethode Champenoise brut would likely have been made from some Chardonnay or Pinot Noir grapes picked early in the season whilst their acidity was quite high and sugar content lower. Whereas a straight Chardonnay produced from grapes picked at this time is definitely not going to result in the big, round flavours many people are looking for.

Once fruit starts coming in, it is all systems go in the cellar. Shift work commences and long hours are a given. Minimising oxidation is critical, so getting juice into tanks becomes number one priority. At this stage, pre-season planning in regards to storage availability and capacity really shows.

As fruit becomes juice, tank settling and pump overs progress to racking operations, where the juice is separated from its lees (solids such as grape skins and seeds). It is here that the real chemistry side comes into play and where the winemaker justifies the cost of their degree. Inoculation with yeast, sulfur and acid adjustments and temperature control must all be finely controlled.

Another major decision is when and how to finish the ferment, whether naturally or forcefully, depending upon the desired style and residual sugar content. After this point, the juice has technically become wine and, from here on in, it is all about quality control and focus on final product goals.

By this stage, most viticulturists are breathing a sigh of relief and winemakers are backing off the hours (unless they are in the business of making ice wine).

The conundrum of the cold season is pruning. A wise viticulturist once said, 'Every day pruning in the sun is one less day pruning in the rain'. Pruning in itself is a reflective task, bringing the practitioner very close to the raw end of nature. The fact that you are stripping a plant bare in order to allow it to produce quality life is such a paradox.

Even worse is the process of grafting vines to a different variety. Hacking the plant off at the stem and seeing its lifeblood oozing out is really quite heart-wrenching. However, it is also awe-inspiring that a living being can not only regenerate itself after such stress, but essentially morph into something new at the same time.

Of course, winter is also an excellent time to drink red wine. This is when last year's reds are starting to be released, wine shows are in full swing and everyone is looking back on the previous vintage's labour and the outcomes.

That rich, complex Cabernet Sauvignon enjoyed with a hearty meat dish in front of the fire just would not have had the same depth and complexity if the pruning had been lax. Too many potential buds on the vine will result in an excessive crop through spring and will limit the flavour concentration within each berry.

Celebration, Fiesta, Carnivale! This is a time of long table lunches, of picnics in the vineyard, of popping Champagne and reveling with a rosé. Some wineries will be celebrating victories at their local show, others will be taking advantage of surging cellar door attendance.

Not everything is fun and games, as the winemakers start planning for the coming vintage, full of hope and expectation. New and adventurous ideas are conspired for the techniques they will use or tweak in the coming year. This is the time of year where big dreams and daring plans can result in the next hidden gem you find through an alternative varietal or a whacky production method. For instance, have you ever tried a white Mataro or a rosémade using carbonic maceration?

It is nigh on impossible to remain oblivious to seasonal fluctuations when working in wine production. So, next time you are relaxing with a crisp white in summer or a hearty red in winter, spare a thought for the year-long labour of love that has allowed you to inject a little seasonal sentimentality into your day.